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“For all their limitations, I don’t believe we could’ve won the war without the firqats,” says Ian Gardiner, a former Royal Marines officer with extensive service to include deployments in Oman, Northern Ireland, and the Falklands.
Before we delve into what the firqats, literally meaning a company, were and their operations with the SAS, we must first understand the Dhofaris and why they rebelled. The seminal reasons for the revolt, before it turned international, had been Dhofar’s perennial ill-treatment and negligence by the Sultans. They had been considered a second-class bunch. The fact that they’re ethnically different from the northern Omanis, and speak their own language and little Arabic, only isolated them even more.
They’re divided into tribes that work under a pure democratic principle. Leaders are chosen on merit, and pedigree is shunned upon. Everyone has a say on the tribe’s decisions. They’re inherently ungrateful, forthright, shrewd, and extremely avaricious—the true sons of their camel-riding raider ancestors. They’re also fiercely individualists—a trait, combined with their other characteristics, that made the SAS’ task of instilling military discipline to them an utter nightmare. They’re extremely agile and prefer to fight barefoot, only carrying a few spare magazines and the odd ration.
As most middle-easterners, they’re devoutly religious. And after the rebellion took a sharp turn towards the left, the adoo, literally meaning the enemy, political officers trained in Moscow and China struggled to introduce their atheist creed to the population. In fact, many captured adoo testified that this was counterproductive and something that pushed the people towards the government. In a counterinsurgency, where the population’s support is everything, such small details make all the difference.
Beginning in 1970, the Sultan’s Armed Forces’ (SAF) increased presence on the Jebel’s villages and the civil work of the SAS CAT teams gradually began to bear fruits. The almost nonexistent flow of adoo defectors loosened from few trickles to a steady stream.
The SAS jumped at the opportunity. A plan was devised wherein small SAS teams, known as the British Army Training Teams (BATTs), formed ex-adoo into firqats. The BATT was completely responsible for its firqat: from training and paying to equipment and health, they were constantly with their firqatmen. No wonder why great bonds of friendship developed between the former insurgents and the SAS. And as London catered for more troops, the BATTs grew, from six to twenty men, their number reflecting the size of the firqat they were responsible for.
They drilled their firqatmen to operate as the eyes and ears of the conventional SAF forces. But special reconnaissance wasn’t their only task. A constant presence on the Jebel was required for effectively turning the population. In-and-out operations were claimed as victories by the adoo. And the firqats were ideally suited for ground-holding operations since they would be operating in their own tribal areas. And also, they were far better qualified to approach their fellow villagers and ensure their needs were addressed by the civil development program than a northern Omani or allied Arab soldier would ever be.
There were three phases in a firqat’s development. First, the BATT would gather ex-adoo from the same tribe. They would sort out their tribal problems and establish a leader. Then came the training and equipping. FN SLR rifles and uniforms would be issued (the firqatmen were always sad to lose their communist-issued AK-47s, but those who killed an adoo could keep his weapon). The second phase was to get a SAF company or battalion and as many BATTs as possible on the firqat’s tribal area and help them clear it from adoo. The last phase was to begin the civil development. A well would be drilled, a clinic opened, a school established, a shop built, and so on. The SAF force would then withdraw and hand over to the firqat to police and protect the area.
Rinse and repeat with another firqat, in another part of the Jebel. Firqat Salahadin was the first to be raised. It was trained in the fishing village of Mirbat. Cultural misunderstandings inhibited the SAS’ work at the beginning. And since the BATT commander was only an adviser, he couldn’t issue orders but only advise the firqat’s leader.
Tact and diplomacy went a long way. The fact that most Dhofaris didn’t speak Arabic, let alone English, further complicated things, but also made the embedded SAS team essential for their effectiveness since they were the ones who called in fire and air support and promptly relayed intelligence.
Every firqat’s first operation was against a soft target, so the SAS could test their effectiveness and the firqatmen gain confidence. For firqat Salahadin that would be the small coastal town of Sudh. Together with their BATT, they infiltrated by boat during the night and captured the town unopposed. In the morning, they gathered the townsfolk and proclaimed Sudh free. As ex-adoo, they were able to weed out any informers and die-hard communists from the gathered people. (The adoo forces were divided into two groups: full- time and part-time. The former were trained and indoctrinated in the Soviet bloc and China and were the most fanatical; the latter were simple Dhofaris disillusioned with the government.) They then spoke of the merits of the new Sultan’s civil development program.
And then they left, leaving an SAS Civil Action Team (CAT) behind to do its wonders. The first firqat operation had been a complete success. With their ability to distinguish who were the committed communists and who were the opportunists, they had cleared the area for civil development. Word would quickly spread around Dhofar that the new Sultan wasn’t that bad, after all.
Soon, other tribes voluntarily came in to be trained by the SAS and be formed into firqats. A pattern was created: each successful firqat operation prompted further desertion from the adoo, and thus more firqats. When an enemy fighter surrendered, he would be shown respect and his debrief would be a casual process—a friendly chat over tea and cigarettes. No interrogation. This was crucial in gaining their trust and building rapport. There was little satisfaction in adoo killing, since they were often fathers and brothers. In fact, it was hard to distinguish them. Michael Kingscote, and SAS officer who commanded a BATT, remembers that, “on one occasion, when I was leading my firqat, I’d to carefully look at some adoo to ascertain they were adoo before opening fire.”
Due to their family ties, communication between the adoo and the firqats was constant throughout the conflict, with each other trying to persuade the other to defect. And as the insurgency grew weaker, and with confidence in victory fading, adoo OPs would be always manned by three men in case one convinced the other to defect to the firqats.
Major General Arthur Denaro, who as a young officer served in Oman, remembers an incident that accentuates the transcending ties between the two opponents, “for two days I’d been lying in ambush with my soldiers. When the enemy, of whom we’d been told on good intelligence were coming, arrived. And they were just about to enter the killing zone of my machine guns when suddenly one of my young Arabs stood up. And the enemy run. Mildly irritated, I turned to this lad, and while shaking him up and down by the throat, I said, ‘why did you do that?’ ‘One of them was my brother,’ he said. And the next day that whole enemy patrol surrendered.”
What started in 1970 as a group of ragtag defectors hastily mushed into an under-equipped firqat, had turned by the end of war in 1976 to a force of twenty-one well-equipped firqats composed of more than 1600 men that could police the whole Jebel and ensure its stability.
If that’s not a marvel of foreign internal defence, what is?
Featured image courtesy of Daily Mail